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What does Google know about me?

opinion  Paul Jarvis · Oct 25, 2022

There’s a lot of us who use Google as part of our daily lives, but how much do they know about us? What information do they record and what do we have to hide?

Then what steps can we take to manage what they know about us and our online safety, if we so choose.

Google is much more than a search engine so here’s how you can find out what they know about you. And help on how to control your privacy and the data you share.

Imagine if every time you use your computer, there’s a person standing over your shoulder, writing down everything you search for (including when you embarrassingly searched for "do cars run out of honk?").

Oh, and that person then keeps those records forever.

Then, after you've finished searching for things, that person keeps standing over your shoulder, watching you as you visit 86% of the websites you're clicking around on.

Each time you visit a site with an advertisement, the person notes that you've seen that ad (and if you've clicked it). They also pay special attention to the videos you watch on Youtube.

You decide enough is enough and turn on incognito mode in Chrome and try to block their view of your screen… it doesn't help, and they keep watching you and your computer.

You're now getting a little freaked out because this person is… creepy. So you get in your car, punch an address into maps, and head out. But that person is somehow now in your back seat, noting your location and all the stops you make.

You go home because this is getting just plain spooky.

You hop onto your Android phone to use a few apps, and there they are again, with their little notepad, keeping track of what apps you open and who (and what) you text.

You notice this person making notes when you walk past your doorbell camera, your backyard camera. They make notes when you send emails and even when you're adding to your schedule in your calendar. They see photos on your phone, even the ones you've deleted, and make sure they've noted what the photos were of.

Unfortunately, this is not a scary story for Halloween. This is the daily reality for too many of us. And, unless we do something about, this creepiness will continue.

This creeper is named Google

Google is one of the biggest tech companies on the planet. They're not a search engine company (not anymore). They're a surveillance and data collection company… and we're all collectively the product they've decided to monetize.

Google keeps a record of the following:

  • Every time we use Google to search for things, including embarrassing (or medical) searches.
  • Every time we visit a website, as 86% of websites on the internet use Google Analytics.
  • Every time we visit websites with ads on them (as most ads online, especially the ones that follow us around, are Google Ads).
  • Every time we use Google Maps or anything with Google Location Services on it.
  • Every time we use an app on an Android phone (when we use them and where we use them)
  • Every time we leave an Android phone dormant with Chrome running in the background.
  • Every time we use Chrome, even in incognito mode.
  • Every time we watch videos on Youtube, and what we search for there (Google owns Youtube).
  • All our text messages on Android devices (since they aren't encrypted)
  • All our photos and files on Google Drive (Google Photos), even if we've deleted them.
  • If we use Gmail, Google can access all our emails (content included).
  • If we use Google Calendar, Google has access to our whole schedule.
  • If we use Google Meet, Google has access to every meeting we do.
  • If we use Nest cameras, Google can access all our recordings inside and outside our homes and doorbells.
  • If we use Google Home devices, they have access to everything we say within "earshot" of those devices.
  • If we use Nest routers, they have access to everything we do on the internet.

No doubt so many more things we don't even know about yet (i.e. things they haven't been caught doing yet).

If this were a real person invading our privacy in the way Google does, we would call the authorities, and they'd act (as it'd no doubt be a criminal offence for a human to spy on another human like this). But with Google, we sometimes willingly (but sometimes unknowingly) let them spy on and track our every move because they give us "free" products like Gmail or Google Analytics or YouTube.

These products are far from free when we pay for them with our data and privacy.

Why is Google a creeper?

But why would Google want all this data about each of us? Surely they wouldn't want to be evil about it? Oh, wait…

Google would never publish or publicize what they specifically do with all the information they have about all of us. But, based on their revenue, we can make some decent guesses.

Google, as stated above, is a surveillance company. They build these robust profiles about all of us (our likes, dislikes, political leanings, etc.) so they can monetize them. Over 3 million websites and apps have Google Ads on them, and many more companies buy Google Ads with specific criteria for who they want to see those ads. So knowing as much as possible about us is just good business for them in the spying business. They profit, the people who buy the ads profit, and the people who display the ads profit. Everyone profits here except us.

If it feels creepy, it's because it is. We didn't opt into this tracking or monetization of our data. We didn't ever tell Google it was ok to watch us all the time. And even if it makes a funny Halloween costume, we just assumed they wouldn't be evil about what they do with all our data.

Big Tech Halloween costume

But what if I don't have anything to hide?

Some have argued that they aren't concerned that Google knows what type of cat food they buy, what Marvel movies they don't like, or they're re-routed while on the way to the grocery store.

If you do nothing illegal, you have nothing to hide, right?

While this seems like logical reasoning, it's entirely flawed (and dangerous).

Privacy isn't about hiding things we do that are wrong. Privacy is about all of us having control over what we want to be public and what we want to keep private.

And, even if we aren't doing anything wrong, should a company be allowed to follow us around the internet and profit from it (without cutting us in on some money too, or asking if it was ok to do it)?

If law enforcement wanted to enter your house, go through your stuff or spy on you, they'd need a warrant from a neutral (financially impartial) judge. If a tech company does it, there's nothing required. Even when we think we're being private, like using incognito mode, they're still spying on us.

If Big Tech companies wanted this data, they should, at the very least, have to ask for it (and it shouldn't be that we’re collectively all opted-in by default). And, if a few of us agree to be tracked, we should have some financial incentives for letting them watch us (Big Tech companies make billions from our data, after all).

It’s always helpful to know what data anyone is tracking so here are 3 resources to check what Google knows about you and one if all that information has tipped you to wanting to opt-out.

How do we take control of our privacy back?

"Short of chucking your phone into the river, shunning the internet, and learning to reread paper maps, there's not much you can do to keep Google from collecting data about you."Professor Douglas Schmidt, Vanderbilt University

Professor Schmidt is correct that it can be challenging to get away from Sauron's Google's watchful eye, but he's wrong in that it's not impossible to do so.

Although Big Tech companies like to think they're monopolies (and they certainly do all they can to be and stay monopolies), there are other options. Especially in recent years with an influx of alternatives.

You can obviously make your website a black hole to Big Tech by removing Google Analytics and switching to Fathom Analytics. But we can do a lot more to deGoogle our lives.

Let's go through all the points above where Google spies on us and look at some privacy-focused alternatives:

  • We use a privacy-focused search engine like DuckDuckGo.
  • We can use a privacy-focused website analytics company like Fathom Analytics (hey, that's us!)
  • We can buy contextual ads instead of personal information-based ads. I.e. showing an ad based on what's on the page, not based on who the person is looking at the page.
  • We can use maps that don't track us, like HERE WeGo.
  • We can not use Android phones or install an OS that's de-Googled like GrapheneOS.
  • We can use a privacy-focused browser like Firefox.
  • Every time we watch videos on Youtube, we can do it through Duck Player.
  • We can message on encrypted platforms, like Signal.
  • We can store photos or files on encrypted software like Tresorit or Sync.
  • We use Fastmail or Protonmail for mail and calendars.
  • We can use WhereBy for secure meetings.
  • We can build home security systems that aren't connected to the cloud or, at the very least, are encrypted.
  • We can not use "smart" speakers (and just be old-fashioned by looking things up on our tiny pocket computers)
  • We can use a VPN to mask our internet browsing, like ProtonVPN.

And amazingly, the list of privacy-focused, Google alternatives gets larger all the time.

Unmistakably, we have a vested interest in promoting Fathom Analytics since it's our company, and we do so because we feel strongly about the transparent measures we take to ensure the privacy of visitors who visit websites with our script installed. But for all the rest of the above suggestions, we have no financial incentives to promote them - and mostly, they're what we use personally to stay deGoogled, and privacy-focused in our own daily lives.

Google isn't the only bad actor here, either. Most Big Tech companies with no apparent business model (most social media networks) rely on watching us and selling that data to generate revenue. You could easily replace the scenario at the start with Amazon or Facebook to some degree. But it’s worth calling Google out as they’ve perhaps penetrated the furthest into surveillance capitalism.

The point is that we've been spied on for too long. Our privacy has been violated, and we haven't permitted these companies to do so. Heck, they didn't even offer us monetary compensation for our data!

So let's take our privacy back. Let's consider software with more transparent business models (i.e. paying for a product instead of being the product). Let's support companies who put our privacy first and don't bury how they'll get around it in lengthy terms and conditions.

PS: To answer your embarrassing question about a car running out of honk (without violating your privacy to find the answer): it’s possible. If a honk draws about 5 amps of power off a normal car battery, it’d take about 3 days to draw down that battery fully and not have enough juice to power the horn any longer.

Note: this is not legal advice and Fathom Analytics does not ever suggest or condone honking for 3 days straight.

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Paul Jarvis

Paul Jarvis, author + designer

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